From his earliest days as a hip-hop artist, 21 Savage has been synonymous with Atlanta. Right from the outset of his debut release The Slaughter Tape, the young MC staked his allegiance to his city and the specific project that shaped his outlook and life trajectory as a whole:
“VVS diamonds I done flooded out my wrist, I ain’t talkin bout Toronto when I say I’m in the 6”
His music would be littered with representations of the Eastside Atlanta streets that were intrinsic to his life, becoming a trademark quality to his music. While some rappers catch flak for leaving their hoods in the dust, The Slaughter King hasn’t solely relied on lyrics to uplift his city, he’s done so through activism and dollars & cents, too.
Besides being one of the leading donators behind the ill-fated “Zone 6 Day”- which 21 foresaw as a way to “show the kids that grown people can come together and do something positive,” he’s also spearheaded the “Issa Back To School Drive” for three consecutive years as a means of providing backpacks full of school supplies, new shoes and free haircuts to the area’s youth. Made possible by his “Leading by Example” foundation, this infrastructure enables young people to access $1000 to “start their own bank account and gain knowledge in financial literacy.” Despite actively contributing to his community in meaningful ways, the way of life that he’s been entrenched in since his adolescence is now under threat from deportation. Just days after his final verse on “A Lot,” that critiqued Trump’s border policy and the mismanagement of the water crisis in Flint, Michigan went viral, the man otherwise known as Shéyaa Bin Abraham-Joseph was arrested by ICE due to an expired VISA.
Born in the UK before emigrating to America at the age of 7, the story has dominated mainstream outlets, tabloid news and social media channels, becoming a hot button issue for supporters and detractors alike. Although his contemporaries have banded together and shown their solidarity, the reaction from the music-buying public and certain sections of the hip-hop audience has been far more divisive. Due to the genre’s ingrained preoccupation with realness and authenticity, there has been a degree of skepticism that’s been cast upon 21 Savage’s credentials as an ATLien. After his origins in the UK were revealed, many Twitter users and commenters used the revelation to invalidate all of his Atlanta-centric lyrics and equate it to the renouncement of his cultural identity. Labeled as a “fake” by more reactionary Twitter users, these comments echo the rhetoric of ICE itself who’ve claimed that “his whole public persona is false.”
Spurred on by an endless cycle of memes that even left Demi Lovato caught in the crossfire, the flippancy over 21’s fate not only shows a disregard for his and his family’s lives but runs the risk of normalizing governmental tyranny. Now that subsects of the hip-hop audience are condemning 21 to being stateless, it raises the question of why fans of a rebellious and historically counter-cultural force are taking a spokesperson’s decree at face value. Despite his autobiographical bars on inner-city violence and gang ties, it speaks volumes that Dekalb County, GA congressman Hank Johnson has written a letter in support of Savage. Addressed to the “Honorable Immigration Judge,” the US representative has claimed that the rapper “spends his time giving back to the community and supporting and promoting the betterment of our youth. He has been an outstanding figure within his family and within Atlanta.” Based on this testimony, it gives credence to the argument that your home and place you identify with isn’t a birth right, but a product of the impact you make and where you do it.
Throughout hip-hop history, this statement has rung true for numerous high-profile stars without them incurring the claims of being somehow fraudulent or illegitimate. For starters, you’d need only look at one of the genre’s perennial greats to see that a brass-tacks approach to claiming a city, neighbourhood or country is limiting at best. Born and raised in East Harlem at the epicenter of the Black Panther Movement, Tupac Amaru Shakur may have been born in New York but it’s the opposite coast that would be integral to his legacy. Even as he was going toe-to-toe with rappers from his place of birth, noone from the Bad Boy camp used his heritage against him or claimed that it stripped him of his ability to rep California as a whole. Taken from a 1993 interview, Pac summarised the reason why he identified himself as a West Coast MC in a way that bleeds directly into 21’s current predicament:
“When I got to Oakland, that’s where I learned the game. So that’s why I give all my love to Oakland. If I’ma claim a city, I’ma claim Oakland.’”
Just like the pioneer behind “California Love” and “To Live And Die In LA,” Savage’s adult life and his foray into the rap game was informed by his immediate environment rather than his East London birthplace. While 2Pac might be the most overt example, these deviations between rappers’ entry into the world and the cities they champion are rife and even apply to some of his fellow Atlantans. Heralded as one of the most influential ATL artists of the last decade, Gucci Mane was actually born in the Southwestern city of Bessemer, Alabama before uprooting to Georgia in time for the fourth grade. In the same vein as Guapo, Dirty South trailblazer Ludacrisdidn’t find his way to the ATL from Champaign, Illinois until his high school years. Just like the man behind “Southern Hospitality” hailed from Chi-Town, Detroit’s most revered mouthpiece, Eminem, didn’t scuff Michigan soil until the age of 12, whilst West Coast ambassadors Kuruptand Xzibit never reached Cali until they were 16 and 17 respectively.
With each of these rappers aligned with a city that isn’t emblazoned on their birth certificate, the only difference between them and 21 is that their reputation hasn’t come under legal scrutiny. Although there’s little hip-hop can do aside from sign the petitions and voice our support online, what we can help to overturn is this unfounded notion that he’s a fraud when this adoption of a surrogate city has been prevalent throughout the genre’s history. For 21 Savage, the streets of Zone 6 made him into the man he was, claimed his little brother’s life, and provided him with a family and stories that have peppered his lyrics from the jump. In a case of nurture over nature, Atlanta has become his home after he spent much of his adult life there. As the memes die down and the severity of his predicament begins to sink in, it can only be hoped that his 23-hour-long days of lockdown are numbered and he’ll see Dekalb County soon enough.